League play is heating up across C-USA and Thursday night features the biggest conference matchup of the season up to this point - and it’s right here on beIN SPORTS. The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (11-5 overall, 3-0 C-USA) head east to Norfolk to take on the Old Dominion Monarchs (12-3 overall, 3-0 C-USA) at 8:00PM ET/7:00pm CT.
Western Kentucky enters Thursday flying high off a huge 112-87 road win against Marshall - the 2017 defending Conference USA Tournament finalists.
Lead guard Darius Thompson garnered C-USA Player of the Week honors after a 33-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist performance earned him just the second triple-double in program history. Kentucky native Justin Johnson had a career-high 27 points and 8 rebounds. Four-star recruit Josh Anderson pitched in 16 points off the bench his Hilltopper debut after being declared eligible to play.
By the end of the second half, play had devolved into a Hilltopper dunk contest.
However, baskets won’t come so easily against Old Dominion. The Hilltoppers will go from facing the conference’s worst defense (by far) on Saturday night to facing easily its best defense on Thursday night.
The Monarchs are allowing opposing teams just 61.7 points per game on 38.3% shooting from the field - both good for best marks in C-USA. They rank in the top 25 in the country in most major defensive categories. The Monarchs have ridden their suffocating defense to a seven-game winning streak that dates back to early December.
Old Dominion is in the midst of its fifth season with head coach Jeff Jones at the helm. The former coach of the 1990s Virginia Cavalier teams has had considerable success in Norfolk. The Monarchs are yet to have a losing season under Jones. Their best year came three seasons ago when Jones led Old Dominion to a 27-8 regular season record that earned them an appearance in the AP Top 25 ranks. That said, Jones is yet to lead the Monarchs to a conference championship or an NCAA tournament appearance.
Hopes are high, as Old Dominion may have its most complete team since Jones took over.
Win 1 in a row: ✅— ODU Men's Basketball (@ODUMBB) January 7, 2018
Win 2 in a row: ✅
Win 3 in a row: ✅
Win 4 in a row: ✅
Win 5 in a row: ✅
Win 6 in a row: ✅
Win 7 in a row: ✅
Improve to 12-3 Overall: ✅
Improve to 3-0 in Conference Play: ✅
WESTERN KENTUCKY KEYS TO THE GAME
The Hilltoppers have proven themselves one of the best shooting teams in the country. They are shooting better than 50% from the field on the season - best in C-USA. However, for a team that likes to put up points in bunches, they prefer to do most of their damage from inside the arc. For a team that averages nearly 80 points per game, about 74% of their field goal attempts come from two-point shots.
Head coach Rick Stansbury’s has an apparent aversion to shooting threes, but the Hilltoppers are hitting a conference-best 39.8% of their shots from there - despite taking 19 less 3PT than any other team in C-USA.
The Western Kentucky offense is predicated on their guards’ ability to penetrate defenses in the half-court and their knack for creating plays in the open court. All five Western Kentucky starters average double figures in points. Especially now that the Hilltoppers have a big-time sixth man threat in Josh Anderson, they will be hard to keep off the scoreboard.
Even though the defense has been good enough so far, the Hilltoppers are not as impressive on that side of the floor. Since conference play began, Western Kentucky has forced the least amount of turnovers in the conference and teams have shot 38.6% from three-point land against them.
The team relies on the tough post presence of Justin Johnson and Dwight Coleby to get by defensively - they are fourth and fifth in C-USA in rebounds per game respectively. They will need them to do the dirty work against the best rebounding team in C-USA on Thursday.
In order for Western Kentucky to win, they must:
- Be able to hit tough, contested shots
- Make ODU play fast; force tempo
- Avoid getting dominated on the boards
OLD DOMINION KEYS TO THE GAME
There is no team in the conference more qualified to give Western Kentucky problems defensively. Old Dominion’s size and length should allow them to bully the Hilltoppers’ smaller guards. The alley-oops and fastbreak layups that filled up the highlight reel against Marshall will simply not be there on Thursday night. Remember how much Western Kentucky loves the two-point shot? The Monarchs have allowed the fewest two-point field goals of any team in the country.
Old Dominion leads the conference in steals and blocks - and they don’t all come from one place. Even in the practice leading up to Thursday’s game, the focus was on making sure everyone was in the exact right place at the right time on every rep. The results are evident - they allow the 11th fewest points per game (61.7) and 4th fewest field goals in the country.
We know the Monarchs have an exceptional defense, but the biggest question is whether they can manufacture enough on the offensive end of the floor? Old Dominion ranks 10th in C-USA in field goal percentage (44.2%) and three-point percentage (34.4%) - so they’re not as deadly efficient as the Hilltoppers. However, the Monarchs do have four starters that average double figures in points per game and have scored 80+ twice in their last three games.
The Bilastrator wades through the beautiful mess of this hoops season to give you the best 68 teams@JayBilas' Rankings:— ODU Men's Basketball (@ODUMBB) January 10, 2018
No. 56 - Middle Tennessee
No. 59 - Western Kentucky
No. 68 - Old Dominionhttps://t.co/arVBa7ysFA
Ahmad Caver can be inconsistent as a shooter, but he is very good at setting up his teammates - his 6.3 assists per game is second best in C-USA. Leading scorer B.J. Stith is the best shooter in the starting lineup, and while Trey Porter doesn’t quite have beyond-the-arc range, his post jumper can help do enough to space the floor for the guards. Biggest offensive strength: they flat out don’t turn the ball over. They have given up the seventh-fewest turnovers in the country.
In order for Old Dominion to win, they must:
- Keep Western Kentucky under its shooting averages
- Make the game as physical as possible
- Utilize their strong home-court advantage
Prediction: Western Kentucky 73, Old Dominion 68
Other Thursday Games Across Conference USA
Marshall @ Charlotte - 7:00PM ET
FIU @ UTSA - 8:00PM ET
Southern Miss @ UAB - 8:00PM ET
Louisiana Tech @ Middle Tennessee - 9:00PM ET
Florida Atlantic @ UTEP - 9:00PM ET